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Sunday, Dec 30, 2007

Yesterday, as I walked to the other side of the neighborhood to get my hair cut, I noticed that a little independent coffee shop that had opened only a few months ago was already closed. This didn’t surprise me at all; it was more of a whimsical notion than a coherent business. They sold hip, old-timey nostalgic things like campy paperbacks and candy in 1950s era packaging, and they also sold homemade pies at exorbitant prices. It had two tables in the back and one in front, not sufficient room for anyone to loiter comfortably, but enough where you were made to feel that someone ought to be but wasn’t. And the barristas, if you’d call them that, were generally on their cell phones or in the midst of conversation among themselves instead of dispensing service. And its location, sort of on the way to the subway for that side of the neighborhood, was adequate, but not prime. Maybe, if this article by Taylor Clark from Slate is to be taken as gospel, they needed to be even closer to the Starbucks that’s on the corner a few blocks away.


Clark argues that far from putting mom-and-pop coffee shops out of business, Starbucks teaches local customers to elevate their tastes and to find it reasonable to spend a lot on coffee.


Each new Starbucks store created a local buzz, drawing new converts to the latte-drinking fold. When the lines at Starbucks grew beyond the point of reason, these converts started venturing out—and, Look! There was another coffeehouse right next-door!


The reason Starbucks doesn’t obliterate its competition the way Wal-Mart does, is that it has far fewer overhead advantages, and the ones it implements (cheap, automatic espresso machines) degrades its product. Often, a chief aspect of the service it sells—convenience—is spoiled by its own popularity. And we all know how sentimental latte liberals can be about “anti-corporate” businesses—independent retailers and the like. The presence of Starbucks right next door allows such people to express their political views with much more salience when they actively reject Starbucks for the small-time coffee shop, assuming all the time how clever they are and how much better the service will be from the local people who truly appreciate it.


I admit that such thinking drove me from my local Starbucks to the now defunct independent competitor. I had received a few lukewarm cups from Starbucks (and didn’t have the time on the way to work to go back to the store, wait in line, and ask for a new one) and I remain fed up with Starbucks’ employees inability to properly prepare an Iced Americano, so that it doesn’t turn into a piss-warm puddle of watered-down espresso. I figured the new local place would do a better job out of pride. As Clark notes, you don’t beat Starbucks on ambiance but by providing a better product. But the local shop ultimately failed in this, serving their own lukewarm brew and sometimes making me wait as the counter person carried out their private conversations leisurely rather than waiting on me. Maybe I’m sensitive (i.e. paranoid), but I hate when clerks are laughing with their friends as I approach. I hate disrupting a good time, especially when all I want is what the establishment is presumed to exist to provide. So I stopped going there and made another effort to get up earlier to have coffee at home in the morning. (Clark cites this shocking statistic: only 10 percent of coffee shops fail. That confirms that my neighborhood java entrepreneurs were unusually misguided.)


So, though little public failures always tend to depress me, I wasn’t exactly sad to see this locally owned coffee shop fold. Instead, it was a reminder that I shouldn’t make the mistake of being sentimental about mom-and-pop stores. It’s the same temptation as being sentimental about small-town life, while forgetting the stultifying conformity and the routine invasions of one’s privacy. One benefit of, say, going to Starbucks is that you preserve your anonymity, which is tantamount to remaining basically equal in the eyes of the clerks (though the tall guy with the glasses at the Starbucks on my corner remembers me and gets my small coffee ready without my having to ask—this is more than the local place would do). Mom-and-pop places are much more prone to the petty graft that comes from familiarity and small-scale aspirations—extorting tips, using variable, spontaneous pricing to take advantage of neophytes, and so on. Local places will play favorites with customers, decide who belongs and who doesn’t, and work in various subtle and unsubtle ways to exclude those deemed undesirable. Some people will get “the nice guy discount” (if they have the gumption to ask for it) and others will get stonewalled mysteriously as they wait to be helped.


Ultimately, it depends on the disposition of particular employees how one will be treated in a shop, but national chains are more likely to insist on uniform service apart from local considerations. Sentimentality leads us to believe that those considerations are to our favor, are the sorts of things that knit us into a community. We forget that they can work the other way, and remind us of our arbitrary exclusion.


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Saturday, Dec 29, 2007


Believe it or not, making worst-of lists is a heck of a lot harder than making best-of determinations. The explanation for why may seem specious at first, but follow along anyway. You see, something good stands out for numerous reasons – brilliant direction, monumental acting, a quick and brainy script, an approach to a subject that is fresh and dynamic. Even when that story seems similar and the elements reek of the routine, energy and mood, tone and treatment can all aid in a film’s final aesthetic determination. But with the bad, the facets are sadly familiar – boring execution, non-existing cinematics, lame, ludicrous writing and performances that range from problematic to pathetic. These aggravating aspects never change, they never alter their underachieving patchiness. A crappy effort is a crappy effort, each one feeling similarly unworthy and unacceptable.


So when faced with the mountain of mediocrity a DVD critic is exposed to each year, finding a mere 10 that turn your stomach is an exercise in remembrance and repulsion. Looking back means identifying works that wasted your time, revisiting filmmakers whose arrogance blinded them to their true lack of artistic acumen, and generally re-experiencing the pain of time lost, sensibilities shaken, and interest waned. Again, the same rules apply here as with the Films You’ve Never Heard Of category. The movie itself can be from any year – the digital version, however, had to arrive on the medium in the past 12 months. For the most part, we are dealing with dull, lifeless movie macabre. Between Joe Bob Briggs’ famous three “Bs” – blood, breasts and beasts” – there’s enough genre junk on hand to send horror back to its pre-Gothic roots.


So grab hold of your aesthetic and wade in cautiously. SE&L‘s 10 Worst DVDs of 2007 have been known to drown even the most adventurous cinematic swimmer:


#10 - Mummy Maniac
At first glance, Mummy Maniac looks like your standard serial killer crap. After watching it, you realize it’s just another dismal digital excuse for dread. It’s the product of first time filmmaker Max Nikoff and his ongoing association with none other than Ulli Lommel (the direct to DVD cousin of fellow German joke Uwe Boll). Reduced to churning out horrendous hack fright flicks with all the panache of a heart punch since his ‘80s heyday, the aesthetic acorn hasn’t fallen far from the offal oak Lommel has spawned. Nikoff, who worked on a few of his mentor’s miserable motion pictures, produces equally worthless junk, excuses for entertainment that are neither clever nor competent.


#9 - Gag
Sigh. This is what it’s come to. This is what dedicated fright fans, supporters of the genre critics love to hate and mainstream audiences love to marginalize, have to put up with. Gag is an appropriate title for this offensive little load. The entendre applies to a number of B&D ball stoppers used, the nauseating nature of our murderer’s methods, and our intestinal fortitude once this 78 minute stool sample has finally passed. In a world where some manner of god would step in and stop such unimaginative copycatting, this Sawstel slop wouldn’t exist. Clearly, said creator is on extended holiday as Gag is more than happy to deliver scene after scene of mind-numbing gorno mediocrity.



#8 - Mad Cowgirl
So pretentious that free-verse reading Goth poets are pissed off at its affectations, Mad Cowgirl is an overly arch load of bovine bollocks. It reeks of the ambitions of its self-important creator, crashing and burning like any good train wreck should. At any given moment, this dung pretends to be a sobering drama, an erotic thriller, a dark comedy, a character study, a social commentary, a harangue on the human consumption of red meat, and a mannered martial-arts homage. Unfortunately, our director can’t find his way through or out of any of these concepts, resulting in a movie that frequently plays like the cinematic equivalent of channel surfing.



#7 - Creepshow III
When you want horror, go to the people who know it best. For example, when you’re out to make a film called Creepshow III, based on a previous pair of cinematic installments created by macabre maestro Stephen King and terror titan George Romero, don’t send in a couple of hacks whose main credits consist of some under the radar episodic television work. Yet the directing team of James Glenn Dudelson and Ana Clavell were given the call. Responsible for some incredibly inept onscreen shivers (Museum of the Dead, Day of the Dead 2: Contagion), after watching their work in this abysmal DVD tre-quel, it’s clear that neither knows the first thing about delivering fear factors.



#6 - Curse of the Zodiac
Make no mistake about it - this is one of the worst movies ever made. Actually, comparing this crudely conceived compost heap with cinema and the infamous litany of lame motion pictures does a disservice to both entities. Rare is the filmmaker that finds Ed Wood or Dale Restingini readily capable of mocking him, but ex-Rainer Werner Fassbinder pupil Ulli Lommel easily earns said metaphysical mudslinging. This senseless exercise in celluloid hubris wants to bring a new perspective to the now notorious ‘60s/‘70s unsolved killing spree. Apparently, such a revamp needs to involve inconsistent period details, incredibly bad adlibbed acting, and a killer whose externalized internal monologue sounds a lot like that YouTube boob known as the Insult Alien.



#5 - Bizarre Lusts of a Sexual Deviant
Part pointless pornography, part attempted psychological character study, first-time filmmaker Zert Sineca’s cinematic stasis is all tease and very little release. It prepares its audience for 70 minutes of mind-numbing sleaze and ends up delivering a little over an hour of awfulness. It would be nice if the director had come up with some occasionally clever dialogue, or valid insight into the understanding of the sexually depraved mind. But all we get is another of those time warp titles that refract the passage of minutes and turn this entire entertainment experience into the cinematic version of a Depression-era danceathon. It’s as physically and emotionally tiring as those torturous excuses for 1930’s escapism.



#4 - Exterminating Angels
Mix one part David Lynch, a few unhealthy jiggers of Zalmon King, a quart of the typical French film flesh peddling, and a decidedly asexual approach to softcore, and you’d get just a small portion of this preposterous self-righteous smut stupidity. It’s not just that we could care less about fictional filmmaker Francois, his fascination with troubled actresses Charlotte, Julie, and Stephanie, or the preposterous moments when the foursome flits off to a hotel room to “rehearse” their “screen tests.” No, this movie hopes to probe the problematic mind of the female species. What it winds up offering is nothing more than endless sequences of existential conversation followed by moments of babe/babe finger-banging.



#3 - Amateur Porn Star Killer
If you have the audacity to scream “snuff film” you better have the cinematic huevos to deliver on such crass carnival barking. No, we don’t want to see you actually murdering your neighbor/spouse/significant other on screen. What we’re talking about here is realizing and fully understanding the vacuous reasons why such an exploitation non-reality remains a viable urban legend. Couple Shane Ryan (co-writer/director/star) and Michiko Jimenez (co-writer/star), think they have found a novel, neo-Blair Witch way to make such a dull first person POV slasher experiment resonate with retail possibilities. Mixing borderline XXX gratuity with a pseudo-realistic recreation of your typical pedophile/victim playdate, the results are horrific, sickening, sad, uncompromising - and impossible to enjoy.



#2 - Oil and Water
According to the old proverb, oil and water do not mix. Well, after watching the independent mess named after such a sentiment, it is clear that writer/actor/director Peter LaVilla and talent do not gel either. Sloppy, stupid, and without a single redeeming cinematic characteristic, this supposed romantic comedy is about as funny as a foot rash and as sentimental as a slap in the face. You can see what LaVilla is striving for: he wants love to bloom between two impossible egotists. Unfortunately, the filmmaker makes his leads into the most mean-spirited, miserable mofos ever to stain a screen. It’s like cheering for Bill O’Reilly and Anne Coulter to settle down and start spawning.



#1 - Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door
The Girl Next Door is a frighteningly irredeemable film. It’s light years beyond any so-called ‘torture porn’ and is so repugnant and reprehensible that Eli Roth would probably disown it outright. This doesn’t make it an unprofessional or talent-free experience, just an excruciating, nauseating, and distasteful one. With its ‘based on true events’ motivation and exploitation like desire to investigate the most vile of human behaviors, this is a drama that gives off significantly mixed signals. It’s like Stand by Me in a slaughterhouse, a retro coming of age where acts of inhuman brutality substitute for sipping beer and sneaking a peek at a girlie mag.


There will be critics who compliment the ‘brave’ performances all around, who point to Blythe Auffarth’s hapless heroine Meg and Blanche Baker’s completely wicked witch Ruth and froth at how daring and uncompromising their acting is. But in the end, it’s all in service of a sleazy, incomplete narrative that never explains the dementia behind the disturbing imagery. Instead, we are supposed to be shocked at the numerous atrocities (the plot is based on the horrible case from the 1950s involving the torture and murder of teen Sylvia Likens by her clearly insane Aunt Gertrude Baniszewski) and marvel at how artfully it’s all been done. Instead, we wonder how something this sordid ever got made. It’s beyond salvation or explanation.


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Saturday, Dec 29, 2007





 




 



Do humans have efficacy? The ability to exert influence over the world around us?


An important philosophical question—one asked through the ages. Inherent in the debate about whether it is structure or action—external forces or free will—that determine our fate. But also a question that informs the “great person/on the shoulder of giants” versus “worker bee/group process” debate, applied to both intellectual production and societal evolution.


“Do humans have efficacy?” is a question at the heart of game theory and it also has, over the years, surfaced in fields as far-ranging as the biological and chemical sciences, physics, history, politics, and even, at times, economics.


It is also a question that can be asked when viewing movies such as the one referenced in this entry’s title. Well, for that matter . . . so, too, in just about every Hollywood movie currently produced. Charlie Wilson’s War, No Country for Old Men, Beowulf—you name it. How can a plot live without efficacious humans, natural forces (or sorceresses)? Without one or more characters exerting influence on someone or thing, plots tend to stall and cash registers tend not to ring, accordingly. So, according to Hollywood, humans have efficacy.


Dissolve to final curtain. End of discussion.


But what of real life? Well, that was the question I asked the day after I saw I am Legend, which was the night before I returned to my temporary home back in the U.S. The night that I shot hoops at my sports club.


“Do I have efficacy?”


A question asked not because I couldn’t get the ball to fit often enough in the basket; but because of a person I encountered. Quite by accident and then with not such a thrilling answer in response.


The story goes like this . . .


 


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Friday, Dec 28, 2007


It’s no small measure of the last 12 months that half of the films featured on SE&L’s 2007 list are without confirmed distribution as of this date. Sure, Manhattan mavericks Troma will eventually release two, but the other three stand out as attempts by completely independent filmmakers to get their efforts out into the money-engorged mainstream market. In past years, makers of such an obscure top ten had to pick from movies made decades earlier, only now getting a legitimate digital release. Today, the potential selections are so numerous that it’s almost impossible to glean the valid from the vapid. Still, when you consider the untold number of direct to DVD films available, finding a group of praise worthy productions remains a daunting task.


So before the breakdown, some rules. We narrowed the choices down to anything released between 1 January and 31 December. The actual year of origin/production was not important - the movie simply had to have a digital version available in 2007. Similarly, we tried to champion as many unknown writers and directors as possible. While Lloyd Kaufman and crew probably don’t count, everyone else here is practically a feature film newbie. Finally, we tried to tackle as many genres as possible. As part of this Decalogue, we have three clear comedies, one documentary, three horror films, a pair of avant-garde grindhousers, and a spaghetti western homage. They add up to one amazing set of movies, a collection of creativity the likes of which many of you have never seen.


So let’s begin 2007’s Top 10 Films You Never Heard of with the ridiculously randy entry at the bottom:


#10 - Pervert!
Proudly proclaiming its debt to Russ Meyer and the frisky exploitationers of the past, outsider auteur Jonathan Yudis has ALMOST made one of the best worst movies ever. Starring “adult film star” Mary Carey and a remarkable Darrell Sandeen in the mandatory Stuart Lancaster roll, what we get here is part horror film, part softccore smut fest and a whole lot of bare naked bosom. In fact, the film is flawless for its first 40 or so minutes. When our lead finally leaves the narrative, her replacements can’t keep things afloat. As long as you ignore this questionable quibble, you’re sure to have a good time.



#9 - Disaster!: The Movie
Is a filmmaker tempting critical fate by taking on a cinematic archetype in a manner that shows like South Park and Robot Chicken do a heck of a lot better? Does a stop motion animated action adventure featuring caricatures of the genre’s greatest hits lose some of its lampoon luster thanks to non-stop references to BMs and other bodily fluids? The answer, fortunately, is no – at least in the case of director Roy T. Wood’s anarchic Armageddon send up. Overloaded with cartoon T&A, non-PC puppeteering and about every Hollywood cliché the apocalyptic thriller has to offer, this cornball cavalcade is a pure schlock sensation. 



#8 - Knee Deep
Documentaries don’t get any more compelling than this hilarious whodunit clash over a depressed dairy farm. While hanging clothes on the washing line, Janette Osborne heard a small pop. Suddenly, there was a sharp pain in her side. As she headed for her car, she thought she saw her son standing near the house, a rifle in his hand. Seconds later, two more shots were heard. Thus began Farmington, Maine’s most notorious case of attempted murder with the estranged Josh and his latest live-in gal pal Donna charged with the crime. Filmmaker Michael Chandler was lucky enough to hit on the case and, Brother’s Keeper style, he delivers one of the most compelling works of stereotypical ‘stranger than…’ ever.



#7 - Deadwood Park
For those who wonder why they don’t make horror movies like they used to anymore, Eric Stanze’s Deadwood Park is the answer. In this hurry up and hurt someone status of scary movies where buckets of blood and a volley of body parts help measure a macabre’s supposed success, this creative classicist goes way back and old school, creating a visually stunning and emotionally powerful piece of cinema in the process. As a director, this St. Louis based filmmaker has always stressed imagery. But here, within the context of this genuinely intriguing tale, Stanze really lets his lens do the talking.



#6 - Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon
Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is one of the best, most original horror spoofs ever. Like a substantially sharper Scream, it wants to deconstruct the slice and dice genre staples while creating some terror benchmarks all its own. First time filmmaker Scott Glosserman should be proud of what he accomplishes here. The narrative is fresh, innovative, intelligent as Hell, and completely capable of delivering both scares and satire. Taking the slasher storyline as a literal lifestyle choice, and tossing in a solid murderer’s mythology, he resurrects a long dormant fear factor and makes it sing with new cinematic significance.



#5 - SpaceDisco-One
What do you get when you cross 1984, Logan’s Run, and a failed film production viewed from the director’s slightly arrogant perspective? The latest Damon Packard masterwork, that’s what. Using the War on Terror, the failed information skewering of the Fox Network, and the rising media influence of the Internet as a foundation for a narrative about the mindless pursuit of purpose, this amazing feature is even less optimistic than his Reflections of Evil. It argues that Big Brother has long since stopped being a threat and is now an embraceable reality, much more a part of our everyday life than concepts of personal freedom, love, and respect for human life.



#4 - The Blood Shed
Imagine if David Lynch and Rob Zombie had a baby, and they let John Waters, Jack Hill, and Edith Massey act as guardians ad litem. The results would begin to resemble something similar to the wonderfully weird brain damaged b-movie The Blood Shed. The conceptual offspring of couture auteur Alan Rowe Kelly, this tasty take on the entire Texas Chainmail Massacre strikes an intriguing balance between scares, stupidity, and satire. It takes all the archetypal elements of a Deliverance level hillbilly hoedown, macerates it in a cinematic concoction of kitsch, creeps, and dollar store perfume, and paints a perverted patina over every last piece of lunatic fringe. The results are resplendent.



#3 - Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead
Sadly, the Troma trademark has been turned into a tag for all that is dumb, dopey, schlocky, and stupid. Frankly, nothing could be further from the truth, perfect proof arriving in Poultrygeist. Unlike their camcorder imitators, this is a real celluloid find, a middle finger kiss off to the entire service industry. Using a combination of tried and true gruesomeness, a buttload (literally) of toilet humor, a collection of clever songs, and an acerbic insight into the raging corporate machine, he makes a sensational silk purse out of a skidmarked sow’s rear. Toss in some lesbian T&A and you’ve got an exercise in excess that’s a true crude classic.



#2 - Special Needs
At first, it looks like Special Needs is going to be the same old sloppy reality show spoofing. Isaak James - who wrote, directed, and stars - appears overly eager to roll out a combination of actual and ‘artificial’ human oddities and get us to laugh at what makes us nervous and uncomfortable. It will all be in bad taste and very obvious. But believe it or not, this isn’t where the filmmaker and his clever cast decide to go. Instead, we are introduced to an engaging and intricate world of high maintenance histrionics, battling bravado, and just enough sideshow shock value to transcend the potentially tacky. What should be shallow becomes sensational.



#1 - The Legend of God’s Gun
Like El Topo on even more peyote, or a spaghetti western as directed by Kenneth Anger channeling Federico Fellini, The Legend of God’s Gun is an absolute masterpiece of style over surreal and slightly stereotyped substance. A homemade horse opera, shot of video and put through a millions different digital and post-production elements to create a cacophony of illustrative explosions, the effect is a mindf*ck as episode of the hallucinogenic death metal version of Sugarfoot. With as much in common with the works of Jodoworski and Leone as those of Dennis Hooper (especially The Last Movie) and Sam Raimi (the quirky The Quick and the Dead), what we wind up with is something so invigorating, so jam—packed with implausible pleasures that we really don’t mind the inconsistent acting or lack of linear storytelling.


Sure, some could argue that this is all arch artifice subbing for art, people role playing the Fistful films for the sake of some specious post-modern homage. But because of the loving care director Mike Bruce takes with the overall look of the action, and the numerous knowing beats provided by screenwriter Kirkpatrick Thomas, we get something more than just a glorified geekville serenade. Instead, this is inventive eye candy poised as categorical creativity, a fascinating cinematic case study given a whole new technological shimmer thanks to the ‘anything goes’ availability of amazing aesthetic tools.


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Friday, Dec 28, 2007

The Economist‘s year-end double issue seems to be a catch-all for all the evergreen articles that could find no comfortable place in the magazine’s rigorously formatted weekly structure. It’s comparable in a way to the New York Times Magazine‘s annual year in ideas feature, but far more discursive, almost arbitrary. Among this year’s “Chirstmas specials” (as the table of contents deems them) are articles about Mormons, poker, census-taking, skydiving, Esalen (with some sadly egregious typos in the dek—probably a printer’s error; my heart bleeds for their copy editors) and the sex life of pandas. The two I found most interesting were one about the rise and fall of shopping malls (a photography exhibit prompted me to write about them in the past) and another on the moribund entertainment piers found in coastal resort towns—places in Atlantic City or Santa Monica where you are encouraged to free yourselves of ordinary constraints and waste money on cheap distractions (my favorite is Skee-ball) and synthetic candy and the like.


Why commercialize piers? Not necessarily for their natural beauty, though that can be impressive—I like staring out into the awesome nothingness, the endless horizon, as much as anyone. It’s seductive on several levels, as piers strain and stretch to extend those horizons for us, even if it’s for only a few feet. But as with malls and casinos, piers are disorienting places, making them ideal for separating people from their money. According to the article, pier owners turned away from a strategy of exclusivity to instead cater to ordinary people, believing that they “could profit instead from the mob’s adventurousness: that sense of being in limbo, neither on sea nor on land, suspended in a state of fantasy.”


Because piers are classic liminal spaces—suspended between land and sea, breeching a conceptual boundary immutable categories—the article suggests this creates an opportunity for a “sense of self-discovery” but it is also a place where you know you have reached the end of the line—hence the frequency with which people attempt suicide from them. If one doesn’t opt for that direction, it can be reassuring to know that at that point, there is no other direction to go in but the way back. Retracing the same ground can be tedious, or a kind of tacit admission of defeat, but not at the end of a pier. Then, I accept that there is no shame in going back from where I came.


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